The Relevance of Philosophy

The Relevance of Philosophy

3 Mins
October 17, 2010

One firm belief that I bring to the Business Rights Center is: Philosophy matters. Without a theoretical defense of the fundamentals—individual liberty, private property, freedom of contract—journalistic exposés of alleged injustice don’t take one very far. If one believes that the acquisition of wealth is an immorality as such, one is not going to be energetic when it comes to defending the legal rights of acquisitors.

This thought comes back to me because of comments made recently by Stefan Padfield, who posts at Business Law Prof Blog . He wrote:

“I could look at my life and conclude that I have managed to accumulate enough property to call myself a success according to some set of generally accepted metrics. However, when I try to identify the personal attributes that justify my ownership, I may ultimately conclude that I have primarily 'nature and nurture' to thank. That is, I never chose, in any meaningful sense, the personal attributes most likely associated with my success such as intelligence, drive, wisdom, passion, etc. These were all either given to me at birth or developed by others/circumstances (E.g., my mom surrounding me with books and music as I grew up--thanks, Mom!).  If that is correct, and we also assume a limited amount of property to be distributed, then my asserting a right to exclude others from partaking in some part of 'my' property is arguably infringing upon their equal freedom to enjoy what would otherwise be a more equal distribution of property.  In sum, I have never found defenses of expansive interpretations of personal property rights based on notions of 'I earned it' to be particularly convincing.  (I realize I'm ultimately taking on the entire concept of free will here.)”

Students of philosophy will recognize in this attitude the influence the philosophical tome A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls, plus (as the author acknowledges) a belief in determinism. The belief in determinism is self-contradictory. (If his actions are determined, so too are his beliefs—including his belief in determinism: his beliefs have been thrust into his mind just as much as wealth has been thrust into his hands, and so are not products for which he can claim intellectual responsibility.)

But in addition to Rawlsian justice and determinism, Padfield also endorses the absurd premise that has been well conceptualized as the “puppy-bowl theory of wealth.” According to this view, wealth is not created by men. It is essentially a fixed quantity handed to men by God, or the World, or Society. We people are merely puppies, equally beloved by our owner (God, the World, or Society), and He or It sets before us this fixed quantity of supper. The only question is how it shall be shared. Padfield believes the reasonable answer is: equally.

How do people come to believe such nonsense? Well, Mr. Padfield is an associate professor of law at the University of Akron School of Law. But I think the most likely explanation for his beliefs probably goes back further in his life. For it turns out that he graduated with a B.A. from Brown University (as did I). From that experience, I can attest, only the most intellectually resistant emerge with a sane philosophical outlook. Moreover, I was fortunate enough to graduate in 1969, just as the university’s last standards of intellectual rigor were being destroyed by Ira Magaziner (Class of ’69). Mr. Padfield, alas, graduated in 1990, when there was nothing left. His fall into nonsense was not thereby determined. But it certainly was made likely.